By Aebra Coe
Law360, New York -- The days of BigLaw associates patiently waiting for institutional clients to be dropped in their laps are largely past and, as U.S. law firms struggle with flat demand, young attorneys are increasingly expected to step up their business development game.
In addition to being the best of the best at understanding and practicing law, today’s BigLaw associates must now too be well-versed in the art of attracting new clients and business, a role bestowed on them as law firms struggle to compete in a legal market plagued by increased competition and lagging demand.
The task of developing business is not something that happens overnight, according to Jay Harrington, a law firm consultant and author of the book “How to Start Fast As a Law Firm Associate.”
“There are no tips, tricks or tools that can change the fact that business development was, is, and always will be a long-term game that involves developing a reputation for excellence and cultivating relationships … it’s incumbent upon associates to start laying the foundation for strong business development from day one,” Harrington said.
Michelle Fivel, a partner at Major Lindsey & Africa, added that associates need to make business development a priority in order to become good at it.
“Be conscious of the need to do business development and start early,” Fivel said. “Take a step back and think about the law as a business — which goes beyond just being a good lawyer. Business development is all about relationships and getting your name out there.”
Here are three tips for young lawyers on how to hone their rainmaking prowess no matter where they currently are in their career.
The first step to becoming a good business developer is simply being a very good associate, which positions young attorneys to work on more projects and meet more clients, and also allows them to develop a reputation inside and outside their law firm, according to Fivel.
Associates who strive to have a good work ethic and attitude, even when no senior partners are around, are piecing together a good name for themselves that colleagues and acquaintances will remember for a long time.
“Your peers will remember you later in their career. Those peers may go on to become in-house counsel, or a member at another firm that has a need to refer work out,” Fivel said.
Developing trusting relationships within the legal community requires young lawyers to not only present an impeccable character at work, but also in the activities that they participate in outside of their law firm, according to Ken Young, co-founder of Young Mayden legal recruiting firm. By displaying less than stellar behavior or projecting an unreliable image to the world even outside work, young lawyers can stain their budding reputation.
“If you’re going to get involved, whether on a local board, children’s theater or bar association, do a great job because if you sign up and don’t contribute you have done yourself more harm than good,” Young said.
One way associates can create a first-rate reputation is by pinpointing a specific niche, expertise, or personal brand, and then developing and presenting that brand to the world through social media and other public platforms, John Reed of Rain BDM says.
“The only way a connection thinks to contact you about a legal or business question is if you are the first person he or she recalls at that particular time and for that particular need,” Reed said. “Establishing top-of-mind awareness begins by determining what it is that you want to be known and valued for, and then communicating your brand across your network of contacts.”
Find A Niche
Finding an area of law or an industry that is in need of expert legal practitioners is one way associates can position themselves to be the next big business generators at their law firms.
When associates begin to look outward in an effort to develop client relationships, they should think big, but in a small market, according to Harrington.
“They should try to find under-served, under-pursued narrow slices of a larger industry to pursue,” he said. “Don’t try to tackle the national health care sector. Target surgical centers in a defined metropolitan area instead. Then ‘get in the middle’ of that segment of the industry by writing, speaking and networking within it.”
One way to make that happen, according to Michael Di Gennaro of Lateral Link, is by moving to a law firm that allows associates to service middle market clients earlier in their legal career.
“These clients are the ones that associates have the highest probability of developing but that have no appetite for the billing rates of larger firms,” Di Gennaro said.
Associates should also get ahead of up-and-coming practice areas and industries by developing a keen awareness of the U.S. and world economy, as well as trends in the practice and business of law, according to Reed.
“The American and global workforce is changing, not only demographically, but also in the way business — including legal services — is done. As associates develop their practice skills, they need to learn the business of law and how it’s being disrupted by technology, changing client expectations, and an oversupply of lawyers,” Reed said.
He suggests young lawyers read books and attend webinars about innovation, entrepreneurship, marketing, and business cultures, and commit to becoming a better businessperson, a critical role laws schools generally don’t address.
“There are only four ways to gain a competitive edge — faster, better, cheaper or first — so you need to deeply understand the legal economy and your position in the marketplace,” Reed said.
Another way to begin generating clients is by making use of the internal resources law firms provide to associates, rather than focusing solely on billable hours and impressing partners, according to Kelly O’Malley, marketing director at Reger Rizzo & Darnall LLP.
“[Associates] will often overlook the vast amount of resources available to them, including marketing departments looking to assist with their business development efforts; in-house CLE trainings from partners who have been where they are today; mentoring programs; professional development initiatives ... The resources available to young attorneys in their own firm are often the most valuable, but also, the most overlooked,” O’Malley said.
Additionally, building relationships within their law firm can teach associates about a variety of practices and make them good internal marketers early on, ready to fill the shoes of a rainmaker, she said.
“Just because an associate joins the corporate department doesn’t mean they shouldn’t ask a partner in the environmental group for coffee to learn about his or her business and how they may be of help to each other in the future. This not only gets their name in front of another partner in the firm, but also shows initiative on their part and a willingness to work for new business,” O’Malley said.
Harrington asserts that associates at all levels of experience should be practicing what he calls “intrapreneurship” within their firms in order to raise their profiles and burnish their reputations.
“This means networking internally, across offices and practice groups. It means serving on meaningful committees. It means suggesting innovative ideas for better use of technology and project management,” he said. “Before you can practice effective entrepreneurship outside of the firm, it’s important to become an effective intrapreneur within the firm.”
He said that while the idea is frequently preached to associates, it’s often underappreciated.
“The first, and most important client relationships that most associates will establish derive directly from work done for existing clients. An associate who does a great job for the assistant general counsel at a large company will be well-positioned to develop business when the AGC goes on to become GC at a new company,” Harrington said.
--Editing by Rebecca Flanagan and Emily Kokoll.